What Is Permitting Reform? Here’s a Primer on the Drive to Fast Track Energy Projects—Both Clean and Fossil Fuel

The construction of a new interstate power line near Phoenix has become the latest symbol in the debate over federal permitting reform.

At a groundbreaking ceremony last month for the Ten West Link transmission line, Vice President Kamala Harris praised the project for what it means for the fight against climate change. “To create our clean energy future,” she said, “we must construct thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines all across our country.”

But the line, which will stretch 125 miles between Arizona and California once completed, is also a reminder of how difficult it is to build big energy projects. Developers of Ten West Link filed their initial application with the federal government in 2015 for a project that won’t be fully online until 2025, and much of that time has been taken up by waiting for regulatory approvals.

“We put a man on the moon in less than that,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), speaking about Ten West Link this week in a committee hearing. “Does that seem like a healthy permitting and regulatory system to anyone?”

Crenshaw and other newly empowered Congressional Republicans say regulatory approval for new energy projects takes too long and is too easily stalled by opponents. Many Democrats agree, saying lengthy environmental reviews are also slowing the buildout of clean energy projects needed to address climate change.

In that sense, permitting reform could be a rare area in which the parties can come together.

But we’ve been here before. Previous proposals, most recently in December from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), unraveled because of major gaps in the parties’ views of which projects should take priority, and concerns among progressive groups that the legislation would do more harm than good.

The debate underscores how the appearance of common ground is sometimes a thin layer papering over major differences.

And yet, clean energy business leaders argue that the benefits of streamlining the federal permit process would exceed the harm to the climate. 

“One of my favorite issues is we’ve got to build stuff,” said Jason Grumet, the newly installed CEO of the American Clean Power Association, a clean energy business group, speaking recently at a forum held by Resources for the Future, an energy research nonprofit.

He said the fraught approval processes for building clean energy projects threaten to undermine President Joe Biden’s signature climate change law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we don’t actually think honestly about the timeframes, not only are we going to fail to spend this money, but we’re going to fundamentally fail to use it in the way that is necessary to solve the climate problem,” Grumet said.

He’s mostly talking about the need for the federal government to allow for a rapid expansion of interstate power lines, which are essential to deliver electricity from new wind and solar power plants. Most solar and onshore wind projects get their permits at the state and local level.

The Ten West project in Arizona can serve as an example of how long it takes for a company to get federal approval, and also how a thorough process helped to address concerns about harm to sensitive areas. The Bureau of Land Management’s review led to the modification of the line’s route to avoid Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and tribal lands

And, that review might have taken much less time if the developer had realized the likelihood of objections and proposed a different route from the start, said Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose State University professor, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The American Petroleum Institute has different concerns about the slow pace of federal permitting. The fossil fuel business group sent a letter this month to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, criticizing the Biden administration’s push to take into account greenhouse gas emissions as part of reviews for federal permits for pipelines and other energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“The entire energy industry — from oil and natural gas to renewables — needs consistency and durability in the application of NEPA across the long-time horizons to develop, construct, and operate projects that last longer than presidential administrations,” the letter said.

If you strip away the big differences in the kinds of projects that the two business groups support, they are talking about some of the same frustrations. They feel like the enforcement of NEPA, the bedrock environmental law enacted in 1970, has evolved in a way that has empowered opponents of projects to an unreasonable extent.

But the idea of reducing the public’s ability to raise objections to permits is anathema to a large segment of the environmental movement, including environmental justice advocates.

Basav Sen, the climate justice project director at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, said it’s “a bit of a straw man” to say that projects are being held up because of meetings being held at the community level. The larger problem is that understaffing at the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department and Army Corps of Engineers are leading to longer processing times for the permit application, he said, and that hiring more people could help reduce delays.

Inadequate staffing at the EPA alone, for example, contributed to a record-low number of enforcement actions and several missed regulatory deadlines at the agency last year, with one former staffer saying the department’s employees are being “worked to death.”

Despite those opposing views, it has long been the precedent in Congress for lawmakers to give concessions to the fossil fuel industry as a bargaining chip to advance clean energy. Congress did that to pass the Inflation Reduction Act last year, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, as well as just about every major energy bill over the last few decades.

The question now, with no clear answer, is whether permitting reform will follow that same pattern.

More Good Than Harm  

Since permitting reform can take many paths, it helps to lay out what it meant in Manchin’s proposal, which has failed so far to get enough support to pass in the U.S. Senate.

Manchin first released the proposal, called the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, in September.

“No matter what you want to build, whether it’s transmission pipelines or hydropower dams, more often than not, it takes too long and drives up costs,” he said at the time.

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He also noted that the opposition was coming from a combination of Senate Republican leaders along with people in his own party whom he described as “the far left.”

“I’ve never seen stranger bedfellows than Bernie Sanders and the extreme liberals siding with Republican leadership,” he said.

Here’s some of what the bill would have done:

  • Set a two-year target for NEPA reviews for major energy and natural resources projects that require a full environmental impact statement and reviews from more than one federal agency. 
  • Set a 150-day statute of limitations for court challenges of permits and required courts to set an expedited schedule of no more than 180 days for federal agencies to take action in response to court decisions on permits.
  • Required the president to designate some energy and mineral projects as strategically important for the country, which would trigger an expedited regulatory review of those projects. The list would be required to include a mix of projects, including a minimum number of fossil fuel, carbon capture and biofuel projects, along with other categories.
  • Placed limits on the ability of state and tribal governments to challenge projects under the Clean Water Act.
  • Given the federal government additional authority to approve interstate power lines in cases where the secretary of energy deems a project to be in the national interest.
  • Required approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that would run from West Virginia to Virginia, and whose development has been delayed by an array of legal and regulatory challenges.

Despite some provisions that would have advanced fossil fuels, the bill, on the whole, was a big step forward for clean energy, said Rob Gramlich, founder of Grid Strategies, a clean energy advocacy group that mostly works on issues related to permitting of interstate power lines.

“Overall, the good was better than the bad,” he said.

He bases this view on the idea that fossil fuel demand is poised to shrink, so new infrastructure like pipelines are not going to be utilized at full capacity for their entire lifetimes.

At the same time, he thinks the benefits of expediting the process of building interstate power lines will lead to widespread benefits for the transition to clean energy by giving new wind and solar projects a way to deliver their electricity.

But the concerns from the political left about the bill didn’t end up mattering much because it was mostly Republican opposition that stopped the measure from passing, he said. Republicans felt like the bill didn’t do enough to help fossil fuels.

Permitting Reform Could ‘Screw the Same People Again’

Even though Republican opposition played a larger role in sinking Manchin’s proposal last year, objections from environmental justice groups were a key part of the debate, then and now.

At the heart of those concerns is Manchin’s push to limit the use of NEPA, which requires federal agencies to consider the cumulative impacts an energy project might have on a community and provide that information publicly.

Sen, from the Institute for Policy Studies, said that since low-income households and people of color live disproportionately near industry, placing time limits on that review process could hinder those communities from participating in decisions over projects that could ultimately affect them—including clean energy projects.

“Even when you’re building renewable energy,” he said, “you have to do it in a way that is sensitive to ecological concerns and concerns of social justice.”

More broadly, advocates see some familiar and troubling themes in the push for permitting reform, even for clean energy projects.

“Permitting reform for me, just feels like, ‘Oh, we are going to just screw the same people again, but now we’re going to do it by building transmission lines to their property instead of fossil fuel pipelines,’” said John Farrell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.

He said the larger issue is that communities have little power when large companies want to build projects, and that the solution is not to reduce that power.

Reporter Marianne Lavelle contributed to this story.

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